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    Fr. Joseph Jenkins

  • The blog header depicts an important and yet mis-understood New Testament scene, Jesus flogging the money-changers out of the temple. I selected it because the faith that gives us consolation can also make us very uncomfortable. Both Divine Mercy and Divine Justice meet in Jesus. Priests are ministers of reconciliation, but never at the cost of truth. In or out of season, we must be courageous in preaching and living out the Gospel of Life. The title of my blog is a play on words, not Flogger Priest but Blogger Priest.

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Priestly Celibacy: The Marriage Analogy

The celibate priest signifies Christ, the great high priest and bridegroom of the Church. His role points to Christ: not exclusively as at the final consummation, but as he is right now. Like all sacraments, the priesthood targets mysteries real but unseen. We look toward the ordained man at the altar and we see Father Joe or Father Jim or Bishop Marty or Pope Francis. However, what we do not see with our physical eyes is that it is Jesus who offers the sacrifice of the Mass and who forgives our sins. More than this, when we look to the celibate priest, he has no helpmate or life-companion walking by his side. Instead, the People of God look to one another, particularly the laity, so as to recognize the other component which we do not fully see, the mystical bride of Christ, the Church. The sacrament of marriage conveys something of this mystery as an analogy between Christ as the groom and the Church as the bride. But in the ordained priest, we have a sacrament that goes beyond analogy. The priest at Mass is Jesus. There is one high priest. The spiritual character or seal upon the priest is permanent while marriage is “until death do we part.” Married priests are genuine priests; but there is an inherent tension between the wife in the flesh and the spiritual spouse, the Church. Celibacy removes any possible confusion. A married man belongs to his wife. The priest belongs to the Church.

There are certain critics who hate the marriage analogy employed in understanding the relationship of the priest to the Church. Nevertheless Christ’s union as bridegroom to his bride is fundamental. One churchman recently suggested that given the reemergence of married priests in Western Christianity, it was time for the concept to be discarded. It is contended that too much has been made of a dispensable discipline. The prudence of Church authority is questioned. How dare we make mandatory that which we know from tradition is only optional? Why would the Church deny herself worthwhile candidates for ministry, only because they are married and/or do not have the gift of celibacy? How is it fair that converts are ordained as married priests when we deny marriage to our men raised in the Roman Catholic tradition?

What is my response to these challenges? First, the marriage analogy finds its origin in Scripture and is the logical conclusion of a strict and real identification of the ordained priest with Jesus Christ. Second, the perfect continence practiced by many priests, going back to the apostolic and patristic periods, is evidence that the association has ancient roots; indeed, it is inexorably imbedded in our tradition and sacramental understanding. Third, the analogy carries a doctrinal weight that permeates into many other important questions, like the prohibition of women priests as an offensive type of same-sex bride-to-bride relationship. Fourth, while celibacy is a discipline it remains one with critical doctrinal implications for our understanding of Christ, the Church, and our sacraments. Fifth, while a few are released from the obligation, most are held accountable for mandatory celibacy; we have confidence that God will give this gift to men who are truly called. The concession to men entering from outside traditions is a temporary accommodation for unity and reconciliation. We should not be jealous of the mercy and generosity shown to others. Celibate men should be happy that they have been gifted with the better portion, and thus not want to deprive any of our co-religionists from knowing single-hearted love. Sixth, the celibate and married priesthoods are not the same. We do not look down upon our good married priests, but we would be liars to say there is no divide. The Church has consistently viewed celibate priesthood as the preferred model and thus has made it almost absolute.